For once, there was good news coming out of Pakistan; after an almost decade-long ordeal which saw her jailed, wrongfully convicted, and vilified, Aasia Bibi was finally completely exonerated by the Supreme Court after it dismissed an appeal against an earlier decision that had cleared her of the charge of blasphemy. The facts of the case are now well-known; Aasia Bibi, a Christian, was accused of blasphemy by people from her village, was dragged out of her house, beaten by a mob, and then locked up. Over the years, it has become clear (as now affirmed by the Supreme Court) that the accusations against her always lacked merit, and the allegation of blasphemy was little more than a cynical ploy to punish her for the ‘offence’ of using the same utensils as the Muslim women she worked with in the fields. This was apparently insulting enough an act to warrant sending an innocent person to their death and to this day, even though the Supreme Court has acknowledged that Aasia Bibi’s accusers lied and gave false testimony, no action has been taken against them.

If reports are to be believed Aasia Bibi has now managed to leave Pakistan, presumably joining her family in exile abroad. This news is both welcome and sad; while it is good to know that Aasia Bibi is now beyond the reach of those who would still like to do her harm, it is unfortunate that there is apparently no way for the state to ensure the safety of its citizens. In an ideal world, Aasia Bibi would have never been incarcerated or charged with a crime and even if she had been, her exoneration would have marked the end of the matter and all involved would have gone on with their lives. That this was not possible in Pakistan is a damning indictment of the state of affairs in this country, just another depressing illustration of how the forces of reaction and bigotry continue to hold the state hostage.

There is much to be learnt from this entire saga, demonstrating as it does the ways in which religion, class, and caste intersect to produce the systems of oppression that blight the lives of millions of this country’s citizens. The plight of minorities in Pakistan is well known, and history has made it clear that those who do not belong to the Islamic faith simply possess second-class status, experiencing both de facto and de jure discrimination in their everyday lives; believing in the wrong deity or doctrine may as well be akin to painting a target on one’s back and as an increasing amount of research shows, the systematic discrimination directed towards Pakistan’s religious minorities has relegated them to the lowest, most subordinate positions within the country’s socioeconomic hierarchy. This is particularly true for lower caste Hindus and converts to Christianity, whose continuing marginalisation is perhaps best captured by how they continue to disproportionately perform work like sweeping, cleaning, and unskilled wage labour, essentially the same occupations that their caste identities would have condemned them to a few generations ago. For all the lip service that is paid to the idea of equality in Pakistan, it is clear that old prejudices die hard in the Land of the Pure.

Matters are made worse, of course, by the impunity with which the bigots who twist religion to their own ends continue to operate. The local imam at the centre of the Aasia case, who was instrumental in accusing her of blasphemy, roams free despite the existence of laws prohibiting false testimony. Indeed, as self-proclaimed defenders of the faith have been shrilly crying for years, nothing could be more serious than questions related to the sanctity of Islam; yet, when it comes to clearly ill-intentioned and false accusations of blasphemy that represent obvious attempts to use religion for nefarious purposes, there is nary a word of protest. While the silence of outfits like the TLP on this question is understandable given how they themselves exemplify the cynical use of religion for entirely wordy pursuits, the lack of a response from the state is, at best, a tactical decision taken in light of the possibility that moving against extremism in a more proactive fashion risks a costly backlash that is best avoided. At worst, it may simply be that the state does not care; in a country where life is cheap and bigotry is rife, it is miraculous enough that Aasia Bibi is free.

Therein, however, lies the rub. For a state to pat itself on the back for not executing an innocent woman (without being able to guarantee her safety afterwards) after jailing her for years and failing to protect her and her family from the threat of violence is hardly a high bar to clear. In fact, it is the bare minimum the people of this country should be able to expect and the fact that the state cannot guarantee the provision of due process and security to its citizens is hardly something to be celebrated. Indeed, the problem is not limited to Aasia Bibi, religious minorities, or those accused of blasphemy; as the demands of the PTM show, as well as the accounts of people in the tribal areas claiming harassment at the hands of the security forces, there is an urgent need to take the concerns of the country’s marginalised and dispossessed much more seriously than is currently the case. If even a fraction of the energy expended on convicting Nawaz Sharif were to instead be directed towards addressing the genuine grievances articulated by those claiming to be suffering at the hands of an unjust system, one suspects it would be much more helpful than simply ignoring them or, even worse, subjecting them to further trauma in the form of enforced disappearances and crackdowns on dissent. Much has been made in recent days of the PTI’s successes in the field of foreign policy and its ability to work well with an establishment that is firmly aligned with; perhaps it is time the government turned its attention inwards.

 

The writer is an assistant professor of political.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk